CAIN AND ABEL: What happens when a father plays favorites

והאדם ידע את חוה אשתו ותהר ותלד את קין ותאמר קניתי איש את אדוני

“And Adam knew his woman Eve, and she conceived 
and gave birth to Cain and she said;’I have acquired 
a man with G-d’.”

(Genesis 4:1)

Most of us go through life with a child’s Bible story concept of the story of Cain and Abel. We recall that Cain brought an offering of vegetables, and according to the Midrash not especially good produce.  Abel, by contrast, sacrificed a nice fat sheep. G-d preferred Abel’s offering, resulting in Cain’s jealous fit – during which he murdered his younger brother.

Yet this is hardly the narrative one finds in Genesis.

After some time, Cain brought of the fruits of the earth an offering to G-d (4:3).

Able then copycats his older brother:

And Abel too brought from the first of his flock and of their fat, and G-d turned to Abel and his offering. (4:4)

Based just on these two verses, one can conclude two things:

Cain took the initiative in terms of acknowledging G-d’s bounty, while Abel took his cues from his elder brother’s action.

  1. In a non-carniverous world, when consuming flesh was forbidden for all creatures, it was Abel who violated the ethos by killing a sheep, while the agrarian Cain had obeyed G-d’s ruling by bringing a strictly vegetarian offering.

Where did Abel get the idea that it was okay to kill a lamb, and that this would actually find favor in G-d’s eyes?

It appears Abel was not merely a copycat. He was a revolutionary, even a provocateur, who took it upon himself to violate convention and spill blood in order to appeal to the A-mighty.

Thus it is especially puzzling that G-d acknowledges Abel’s offering while ignoring that of Cain.

Not surprisingly, Cain is crestfallen: … And Cain was very upset, and his countenance fell. (5:5)

Yet, contrary to our childhood Bible story recollections, Cain did not immediately murder his younger brother.  Rather G-d only now notices Cain and his depressed mood:

And G-d said to Cain: ‘Why are you upest? And why is your expression so downcast? (4:6) If you pull yourself together won’t it be lifted up? And (but) if you do not improve then sin is sprawled in the doorway desiring you, but you can overcome it (4:7)

Verses 4 and 6 are cryptic to say the least. What motivation is G-d giving Cain to enable him to lift his spirits? If anything, G-d sounds like the classic authoritarian father, utterly insensitive to his unhappy child, telling him “Boy get a grip or things will only be worse for you”.

G-d offers no explanation as to why Abel’s offfering was acknowledged while Cain’s was ignored. He makes no attempt to lift Cain’s flagging spirit.

Cain, in his misery, and with no one else to turn to, reaches out to his brother Abel.

“And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother …” (4:8)

The big mystery here is what was the content of the brothers’ conversation. The Torah offers no clue. But clearly whatever it was,it served as the straw that broke the camel’s back, pushing Cain over the top from simple misery into outright fury.

 “….And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him”. (4:8)

Now let us return for a moment to Genesis 4:1.  Eve was impregnated by Adam, but she views G-d as her true partner, whereby Adam merely served as a biological conduit.  Understandably, therefore, Cain (and most likely Abel) is raised to view G-d as his father. The relationship is filial in a very direct sense.

For whatever reason, G-d favors Abel.  Hence Cain attempts to win favor with his father (G-d) – as every rejected child does – by presenting him with a gift.  The favored child, noticing his sibling’s attempt to win a sign of love, goes for an end-run, cutting his brother off at the pass – thereby adding insult to injury when father, yet again, gives the cold shoulder to the rejected child while showering affection on the favorite. What’s more Abel has the nerve to break the rules by making a gift that violates normative behavior, knowing he can, and will, get away with it.

And then, in a final blow to the rejected son’s already battered ego, G-d as father tells Cain to get his act together, or else.

Hoping against hope for a word of sympathy from the favored brother, Cain approaches Abel.  We are not privy to the conversation. Yet, from the terrible outcome we can readily surmise that Abel did nothing to assuage his brother’s pain. If anything, it appears he may have poured salt on Cain’s wounds, resulting in the world’s first recorded case of fratricide.

What we have here, clearly, is a cautionary tale.  A demonstration of what happens when a callous parent plays favorites.  When a child in pain is given a dressing down rather than a warm embrace. When a favored child, knowing he can get away with anything, aggravates his siblings emotional wound.

It happens all the time.  The pattern is classic. And, while fratricide is rarely the outcome, there often ensues a lifetime of pain and estrangement, of being lost perpetually in the emotional wilderness of Nod.